The Weaknesses of Portable Controls and Their Negative Effects on the Gaming Industry
When using a tablet, cell phone, or netbook, you are sacrificing a great deal of functionality for the benefit of portability. For many tasks, this is entirely appropriate, time-saving, and convenient. Being able to use Google Maps or search for information on the fly can be valuable. But for gaming? Unless the insultingly simple Angry Birds is your idea of an engrossing video game experience, touchscreen controls or cell phone buttons are obviously inferior to a controller or a mouse/keyboard combo. Yet portable gaming is (in popularity and sales) overtaking the hardware actually designed for playing games, and by a significant margin.
I got a new cheapo cellular phone earlier this year. It offered me games for sale on par with the Super Nintendo’s hardware capabilities. I bought a few with the plentiful minutes I had saved up, and with one exception (Uno, a casual game based on the casual low-skill card game) they were all derivatives of better games, riddled with bugs, and were overall low-quality affairs. I’ve played shareware Windows 95 games on those “1000 games on one CD” things that were held to a higher standard.
This is not necessarily an indictment of Gameloft in particular, but this general badness is what portable gamers are willing to accept: rip-offs of proven successes, cramped and insufficient controls, bad customer service, and shoddy programming that leads to games that are at times literally unplayable.
“Lee, you idiot, all of that is self-evident. You’re preaching to the pope here; the casual scum will never be able to approach my greatness! Besides, you’re talking about cell phones, and no one out side of Japan subway commuters uses those for games. Get an iPad or an Android tablet, you luddite cretin.”
A good friend just bought me one of these Nexus 7 tablets. At last, now I can play all those Android games I’ve been waiting for and review them for my site! *Reads twenty volumes of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure on ComicRack*
After trying out a variety of games of different genres, I can only come to the conclusion that touchscreen controls are terrible for video gaming. Every Android platformer is an imitation of River Raid for the Atari 2600 or Balloon Fight for the NES where your character moves on its own and you tap the screen to make it jump. Puzzle games better involve dragging blocks around or you’ll be stumbling over your fingers trying to manage what’s going on. And games of every other genre have significant limitations that consoles and PC gaming have long since overcome.
Shmups run tolerably on my Android tablet as long as they’re the kind where you shoot continuously and just drag around your in-game avatar with your digits. Something more complicated like Gradius‘ powerup system would just be a hassle on a touchscreen.
How about real-time strategy? Surely you could play an Android StarCraft clone with your index finger? Not unless you don’t mind a small resolution, lack of macros, and your fingers as thin as a “super” model’s waist and and as visible as Wonder Woman’s jet. The amount of precision in your hand compared to a mouse and keyboard—or even a standard controller—is laughably inadequate.
Turn-based tactical games might work, though it’d be easy to hit the wrong button when there’s no tactile sensation with a flat plastic screen. And what’s more is that your hand covers up part of the screen while you’re trying to use it, even with a stylus (creating more things you need to carry around and reducing the purpose of portability almost as much if you carried a separate controller with you). But if the game has a robust flurry of irritating but necessary menu prompts to make sure you can confirm/cancel any action (as does the Magic: the Gathering demo I tried out), this may be one of the few genres where a touchscreen can work without serious issues.
RPGs and stuff? Same as strategy games if they’re menu-based, probably unplayable if they’re actiony stuff. Visual novels (if you even count them as actual games) would be ok, but you really should read a book or comic instead of that crap. Fortunately, an Android or iPad is perfect for that, but that’s outside the scope of this website.
How about shooters? As long as they’re on-rails, a touchscreen is adequate. Requiring separate controls for movement, firing, managing weapons? Not on a tablet; it would be nearly impossible to use effectively. I remember reading discussions about pitting theoretical Unreal Tournament players against each other—half with a d-pad and half with a mouse and keyboard—and watching the latter easily destroy the former. Imagine if the touchscreen players joined the fray; it would be embarrassing but hilarious.
For all my gripes, portable gaming isn’t a complete failure. I still get some mileage out of my DS Lite, and the Nvidia Shield might solve the control issue. (But—let’s not kid ourselves—the latter will only be used for emulating old game consoles, not for Android gaming.) The PS Vita and its touch-bar thing aren’t even in the running, and the 3DS has no noteworthy games as of this writing.
Between the ease of production and raw profitability of casual cellphone/Facebook timewasters, dumbed-down portable game systems have skyrocketed in popularity. Also, Japan has been on a “social game” kick, so we’re seeing a lot of lackluster MMOs and local/online multiplayer gimmicks in their games. The east and the west both agree: meager bare-bones games are where the money is. Big-budget barely-interactive movies like The Last of Us are supplementary to the casual junk and exist to garner cheap easy critical acclaim as well as profits.
Innovation in this industry is almost always expensive and risky; it’s somewhat easier if you have a gigantic advertising budget or a long-running series to help soften the blow of customers having to see something new, but portable gaming is going to stagnate in the near future, and smarter game consoles are going to follow suit. Let’s hope that not everyone’s controls will become as clumsy and inefficient.